One day in 1993, Anita Stech decided to take her three daughters to play hockey in their hometown of Duluth, Minnesota.
“I observed there were girls on many of the boys teams,” Stech recalled. “I said, ‘Why don’t we invite all of these girls to play on an afternoon?’”
About 36 girls came together that day and watched an adult women’s team play. Then they all skated together for an hour. It was the first time Stech could remember girls playing with girls since the 1960s.
“It was a rousing success and spawned interest to give it a try.”
Stech, along with Tom Richards, founded the Duluth Icebreakers Girls Hockey Association in 1994.
“We held a registration that fall and 13 girls signed up for what is now a 12U team. And we got a full roster for 15U.”
From that humble beginning, the Icebreakers have grown into an organization that, this season, will field two 8U teams, two 10U B teams, a 12U A and 12U B team plus a 15U A team.
“There were some girls who wanted to stay with boys, as was the case with some parents because we were an unknown commodity,” Stech said. “Plus, they wondered, ‘How good of an experience could it be for my daughter when it’s all brand new?’ Maybe some people were waiting to see how it worked out.
“I know the girls who played had a great time. Some girls weren’t great skaters when they joined the team. But the nice thing was they were welcomed. There were coaches who welcomed them. It was nice to see that.”
Another hurdle Stech overcame was finding teams to play.
“We made multiple trips up and down I-35 between Duluth and the Twin Cities area,” she said. “Our parents were great sports. They bought into the fact we had to travel to play games.”
Little did Stech realize at the time, that after the Icebreakers were formed, girls hockey would be on the rise.
“More cities in the area formed girls’ hockey programs because girls wanted to play,” she said. “If you were a hot-shot girl, everybody wanted you to play. The girls enjoyed playing together on teams with girls.
“At the same time there wasn’t any [girls] high school hockey but there was a great deal of interest.”
Fast forward several years when Icebreakers alumni from Duluth’s East and Denfeld High Schools formed a co-op team called the Duluth Northern Stars.
“There was a push for (girls) high school hockey going on at the same time,” Stech said. “The way we looked at it was, ‘Hockey is a lot of fun, so why don’t girls get the same opportunity as boys?’”
As a result, the Icebreakers — who are part of the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association — became a feeder program for the Duluth Northern Stars.
Another factor in the formation of the Icebreakers was a synergy with the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“When UMD started [women’s hockey] we had a relationship with them,” Stech said. “When they had their inaugural teams, our girls were there cheering for them. They came to clinics with our players because both programs were in their infancy.
“Our girls were excited about UMD hockey. They were role models. They were taught by Olympic players. We were able to watch on TV women who were on the ice with them. How cool was that?”
When UMD launched its search for a new women’s hockey coach in March 2015, it was no coincidence that the search committee included an Icebreakers assistant coach, Amy Marxhausen, who is also a UMD alumna. The committee’s efforts eventually led to the hiring of Maura Crowell, who came to Duluth after five seasons on the coaching staff at Harvard University. The first-year Bulldogs bench boss, along with her assistant coaches – one of which, Laura Bellamy, also played with the Icebreakers – plan to continue that synergy between the programs.
“Growing the girls game in Northern Minnesota is critical to the future success of UMD hockey, and I also believe it’s our responsibility as coaches and student-athletes to give back – especially at the grassroots level – to the game that has given so much to us,” said Crowell, who is also currently an assistant coach with the U.S. Women’s National Under-18 Team and a summertime instructor at the USA Hockey Player Development Camps.
“We’re role models for girls in the northland and we’re fortunate to live in a community with a girls hockey program as dedicated and passionate as the Icebreakers. We’re looking forward to working with them, and hopefully, inspiring even more girls to play the game.”
Over the years, the Icebreakers have been proactive in that effort, taking steps designed to not only retain players, but also to grow the organization.
“This year we’re doing high school camps for various teams,” said treasurer Steve Meyer. “We hold skill camps for all the levels.
“One of the biggest things we do to keep the cost down is hold one major fundraiser — the Icebreaker Invitational.”
When January 2016 rolls around, 68 teams will participate from all over Minnesota.
“When we started (the tournament) we had to expand that first year because so many teams wanted to participate,” Stech said. “It’s grown incredibly.
“The wonderful thing is it provides support for the girls’ program.”
While the Icebreakers have won several championships in their history, that isn’t the primary goal.
“We don’t turn away girls,” Meyer said. “Sometimes we have a girl who’s a 14U. We won’t turn her away because there isn’t another place to play.
“But, more importantly, we try to improve everybody’s skills. Sometimes it might come at the cost of winning championships.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.